|Pharma 150 chemical plant in Rabta, Libya|
Visiting Libya ten years later in 1989.
I returned to Libya in 1989 when it looked as if World War Three was about to break out. Washington had accused Libya of building a chemical weapons plant and was threatening to militarily destroy the country unless Qaddafi closed the plant down and allowed a US team to inspect the site. Based solely on US intelligence sources, Washington claimed with mounting hysteria that a satellite had pinpointed a construction site at Rabta, about 85 kilometers from Tripoli. We were assailed with a load of PR bull about Libya ‘threatening world peace’, which echoed around the world for most of January. Qaddafi continued to deny the charge.
Pressure from Washington was heating up and people became very nervous about the consequences for global stability. No one doubted the capacity of the US to carry out its threat. In 1986 US planes had bombed Tripoli and killed a number of people, including Qaddafi’s infant daughter. There was also deepening concern that President Reagan – already well away with Alzheimer’s disease – was about to vacate the White House with a literal bang. There was an added sense of urgency when two American F-14 Tomcat fighter pilots chanting ‘good kill, good kill’, shot down two Libyan MIG-23s over the Mediterranean, claiming self-defense. The Libyan pilots died.
Rather than waiting for something to happen, small groups from around the world traveled to Libya during that critical period to act as human shields to encourage some thoughtful talk. But once our media heard that a group of Australians were joining them they went feral, deciding for us in advance that our mission was solely concerned with passing judgement on Libya, to find it ‘guilty as charged’. We were also attacked for going to a country that was supposedly developing chemical and nuclear weapons, neglecting to mention that the nations they ardently supported – the US and Israel – had both in abundance.
We had many meetings with a variety of Libyans, the standout being our audience with their leader, Muammar Qaddafi. It took place in a large red, green and yellow Bedouin tent in the center of the Aziziya Barracks in Tripoli. Draped in a striking camel-colored mohair cloak, he talked of peace and that a genuine peace was not based on terrorism but based on love (tell that to the Yankees, I thought), and expressed surprise that the smear campaign against him had reached Australia. He believed that Australia should remain aloof from the imperialists – so did we – and expressed disappointment that bilateral agreements between us were sacrificed too readily considering that major programs of cooperation could be expanded.
In the General People’s Congress, we met Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister, Ibrahim Abukhazan, who also mentioned his desire to re-establish links with Australia. Libya had been forced into confrontation with the United States after its revolution, he said, and any genuine revolution would get the same reaction. Prior to 1969 all of Libya’s resources went to overseas capitalists, who used the country as a military base, with their political institutions getting their instructions from the British and American embassies. He believed Libya should be allowed to build new relationships, but the shock of its revolution was so profound that Western reaction remained one of undiluted hatred, despite its style of democracy being a consecration of what was aspired to in the West by Voltaire and the Rights of Man, but never realized because our governments got their orders from Washington.
We were eventually driven to Rabta, but only on the outskirts where a huge tent city had sprung up, not close enough to pass judgement on its function one way or another. We joined thousands of anxious people keeping vigil, singing and holding hands and praying for peace. The furor over Libya lasted for most of January, but collapsed with the end of Reagan’s presidency. A story buried on page 17 in the New York Times on 2 March 1990 – ignored by our own media – stated that White House officials had admitted that the Pharma 150 plant at Rabta was not going to manufacture chemical weapons after all, but was being ‘converted’ into a pharmaceutical plant. Which was precisely what the Libyans had been saying all along.